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Saddam replaces three ministers

NICOSIA (Agencies) - Saddam Hussein replaced three cabinet ministers yesterday, giving his foreign minister the finance portfolio and sacking his minister of higher education.

Presidential decrees released by the official Iraqi News Agency said the Finance Minister, Majid Abed Jaafar, was replaced by the Foreign Minister, Ahmed Hussein. Mohammed Saaed al- Sahhaf, who had held the No 2 job in the Foreign Ministry, takes over as Foreign Minister.

The agency said the Higher Education Minister, Abdul-Razzak al-Hashemi, was replaced by Humam Abdul-Khaliq, a close Saddam aide and head of the defunct nuclear organisation. His replacement could be related to recent reports of unrest at Iraqi universities.

The move follows President Saddam's strong showing in a three-week confrontation with the West over United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq.

Within the ranks of the UN inspectors, criticism has begun to emerge as to whether the confrontation could have been averted. An unidentified 'senior UN inspector' was quoted in yesterday's editions of the New York Times as saying the dispute over access to the ministry began with a misunderstanding and could have been avoided.

The source - described as being part of the first team and having served as a senior member of the UN Special Commission in charge of the inspectors - said the monitors did not know the building they wanted to search was Iraq's Agriculture Ministry. Had they done so, the inspectors would have adopted a less confrontational approach.

Iraq yesterday criticised a meeting in Washington between James Baker, the US Secretary of State, and Iraqi opposition leaders and dismissed accusations that it was preparing to attack Shia Muslims. 'We congratulate Mr Baker for having received figures who are political, professional and moral failures,' INA said, quoting an official source.

One of the dissidents, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, charged Baghdad with preparing 'a new massacre' against Shia Muslim opposition forces in Iraq's southern marshlands. But the Iraqi official said these reports were 'lies and disinformation' and blamed Washington for spreading them.

NEW YORK - A UN investigator yesterday accused Iraq of indiscriminately bombarding villages in the south of the country and appealed to Baghdad to stop its alleged repression of Shia Muslims living there, Reuter reports.

Max van der Stoel, the special investigator for the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, also said he had a videotape in which the prime minister of Iraq late last year instructed several army officers 'to wipe out' three Marsh Arab tribes, and said it was time the UN sent monitoring teams all over Iraq to report on abuses.